America was one of the first nations in history to ask the question — how do you make things and sell them to a lot of people? This quest led the country to be a pioneer in fostering, utilizing, and ultimately valuing design in an industrial sense.
America was one of the first nations in history to ask the question -- how do you make things and sell them to a lot of people? This quest led the country to be a pioneer in fostering, utilizing, and ultimately valuing design in an industrial sense.
While European countries, like Britain, were focused on selling fairly high-end and exclusive products for the highest price possible to elite buyers and making smaller profits off high margins, American inventors and industrialists -- like Samuel Colt, the creator of the revolver -- were focused on making large profits by manufacturing for the masses.
This mentality was essential to the production of many everyday goods in America and the rapid growth of design in the country within the 18th and 19th centuries that led to the assembly line, the light bulb, telephones, air conditioning and other unique creations.
“America had this burgeoning commerce amidst a democratic mentality of building for many, rather than the European ethos of making one off things for the rich. The U.S. is in many ways the first place where mass productions occured,” Clive Dilnot, a scholar of design history1 at The New School told me.
“Henry Ford said he had to pay his workers enough to buy a Model T, one of the first cars that put the world on wheels in an affordable fashion, for the common man,” said Dilnot, who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Yorkshire, England.
For much of human history, design has been a fascination and play toy of the wealthy, a mechanism for those with abundant resources and time to create new things that they wanted.
America, however, was the first major country where a large number of middle class people could afford a significant number of products, which then forced them to care about and have greater awareness of how items are designed.
This created a unique demand for industrial design, particularly for goods that could be produced in mass and sold at a reasonable price.
"The objective is the simple thing of getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least," said Charles Eames in 1950 when describing his main goal as a furniture designer. He was one of the most iconic American industrial designers who created the Eames Lounge Chair with his wife Ray Eames.
The Eames Plastic Chairs2, for example, are known to come closest to achieving this ideal of Eames’s and were intentionally designed for the ‘International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design' sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948.
Three key factors allowed industrial design to flourish in America’s first couple hundred years: the profit motive of reaching the masses, the invention of interchangeable parts which allowed mass manufacturing to come into existence, and a large land mass with ample energy sources like water and oil which could fuel industrial production rather than small-scale human creations which were the norm until that point.
"If there was no steam power, there would be no British inspired industrial revolution, and thereby no exploding design evolution in America either. "
If there was no steam power, there would be no British inspired industrial revolution, and thereby no exploding design evolution in America either.
However, the American desire and ethos to get rich relatively quickly is also central to the history of industrial design. Without a movement to make goods that would appeal to a large number of people, and a conception of making products in totality, there would be no requirement for a sophisticated series of designs needed to justify the massive initial capital needed for mass manufacturing.
America has always had a vast and varied landscape that necessitated technological innovation driven by good design in order for new settlers to live life comfortably. Abundant resources – rare for a new nation – like water, wind, and oil helped enable the use of design for industrial purposes.
This was the backdrop for new settlers from Europe to America having a strong urge to own more goods and materials, which incentivized anyone who wanted to make money to begin thinking about how to organize production.
The organization of production, otherwise known as manufacturing, predates technology and is a central part of industrial design, which in modern times is exemplified by the Venetian ship Arsenal.
The Arsenal, responsible for the mass-production of galley ships, is often called the first factory in the world3, which led to the revolutionary invention of assembly-line production that Henry Ford and other American inventors would use and build upon in their manufacturing and design processes.
A watershed moment in the history of American industrial design and use of the assembly line for mass manufacturing occurred in the 1800s when inventor and industrialist Samuel Colt made the major contribution of creating a revolver using interchangeable parts.
“You can produce much more with interchangeable parts,” Dilnot told me. “By breaking down a product into its individual parts in the 1840s, each part could be made simply by a machine, that's the trick.”
“The lure of this innovation was you can make more goods and make much higher profits,” he added.
Colt envisioned all the parts of every Colt gun4 he created to be interchangeable and made by machine in a way that each part could easily be put together later by hand in an assembly line. He died in 1862 as one of the wealthiest men in America.
The Industrial Revolution and slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought large capital to the United States. This enabled extraordinary technological shifts like the advent of national railways, which necessitated highly refined and intricate designs in order to ensure that huge sums of money were not wasted when manufacturing bulk products for the masses.
The marriage of high quality design and significant capital have consistently allowed American inventors and design pioneers to make successful products and large profits. These have been key to the American entrepreneurial spirit of ‘big risk, big reward,’ that remains at the heart of modern U.S. corporations that value design like Apple and SpaceX.
This marriage is typified in American history by Jacob Davis, a Latvian-Jewish immigrant who is credited with inventing jeans in the late 1800s. Davis was only able to go big with his pants after teaming up with businessman Levi Strauss for funding and the ability to patent Davis’s unique jean design5, which was a hit with laborers working in the railroad.
Spending more time and resources on design was a calculated defense used by American inventors that reduced the risks when it came to producing goods in large quantities.
Mass manufacturing was built on the back of good design, particularly the use of refined machine tools like the lathes or presses which were fundamental to making something flat. Making an object perfectly flat is extraordinarily difficult and was essential to the American production of various goods like woodwind instruments, baseball bats, tables, and bowls.
“Design seems to be so obvious and trivial, so to speak,” said Dilnot. “It’s not been understood and appreciated throughout much of our history but creating a good product requires it to have distinctive features and capability, form and function, which is a very hard thing to do.”
The American industrial design sensibility as a young nation in the 18th and 19th centuries was driven primarily by a desire for manufacturers to make successful products that had large demand, rather than make things that were icons of design among the elite, which is why the U.S. had very few famous designers at the time unlike Europe.
Although much of industrial design and the modern design profession trace its origins in Britain and in Europe in the early 1800s, it is America that had many of the first “aha” eureka moments of democratic innovation when it comes to making products for the masses – driven by good design that made inventors a pretty penny.